On the evening of 4 May at Christie’s in New York, a previously unknown, seminal sculpture by Constantin Brancusi, probably the first of his admired ‘Bird in Space’ series produced around 1922–23, was expected to fetch a mighty $8 million– $12 million. In the event, there were at least six serious contenders for the piece, and one of them was prepared to pay $27.4 million to capture the sleek, grey-blue marble bird. Unsurprisingly, ‘Oiseau dans l’espace’ set a new auction record for the artist. It also became the most expensive sculpture sold at auction.
What does that reveal about the current art market? That blue-chip modern and contemporary art is still the hottest of properties? That the opportunities to find exceptional pieces of any art are so rare that the world’s richest collectors are prepared to pay any price? Certainly. But the sale will probably also have the effect of hastening the dawning realisation that the prices being realised now for modern and contemporary art make old art look glaringly, ludicrously cheap.
Intriguingly, the past few years have seen increasing numbers of contemporary art collectors, dealers as well as artists themselves, dipping their toes into other markets. Of course there have always been artists who have collected the art of the past — and in recent decades the distinguished collections of Georg Baselitz (Old Master Mannerist prints) and of the Chicago dealer Richard Gray (Old Master drawings) immediately spring to mind. What is new is the range and breadth of this buying — though do not for a moment imagine that any self-respecting collector of contemporary art is suddenly going to start buying porcelain shepherdesses or 19th-century paintings of cardinals. What is appealing to these collectors is work with a comparable aesthetic; work that has a formal, linear simplicity but also a powerful presence.